Pet Connection by Dr. Marty Becker, Kim Campbell Thornton and Mikkel Becker

ANIMAL ATTRACTION

Universal Press Syndicate

The relationship we've had with our pets has changed dramatically in recent decades. They've gone from the barnyard to the backyard to the bedroom, where they now are as likely as not to sleep on the bed with us.

Our pets have gone from utilitarian workmates -- cats as vermin hunters, dogs in many different jobs -- to a single role, that of cherished companion. But the goods needed to care for them and live with them are only now making the change from utilitarian to attractive, a trend very much in evidence at Global Pet Expo, the pet industry's massive annual trade show, which just wrapped up a three-day run at the convention center in San Diego.

While there were still plenty of plain-Jane bowls and no-frills scratching posts, it was clear the flat-out homeliness of so many wonderfully functional pet products is changing. Retailers large and small are beginning to show pet gear that's as handsome as it is functional.

From the major players like Petmate (with its sleek line of waterers in a half-dozen color choices) and Hagen (with its Ikea-inspired stands for bird cages and aquariums) to any number of small entrepreneurs, the shift toward pet gear that's attractive enough to fit into even the loveliest home was remarkable.

Two of those small entrepreneurs were Linda McCallum and her husband, Fred Lomax, who together were showing off a line of pet doors with facades that could be changed to match the look of a home's interior or exterior, or even the whim of the pet owner. Lomax, a furniture maker, came up with the idea after designing a custom pet door for the actress Linda Evans.

Evans' home is filled with custom furnishings made by Lomax that combine centuries-old design with modern functionality. She called him to ask for a door to match for her cat, Zen.

"She said, 'If I'd known it was going to look this beautiful, I'd have put it in the front door,'" said Lomax. McCallum, a 30-year friend of Evans' with a background in marketing and motivational speaking, knew they were on to something.

"We were looking for a new business," she said, adding that they soon realized that the basic pieces of the pet door hadn't changed much in three decades and also had some room for improvement.

Lomax is also an engineer, and together they came up with a design that sealed tightly and had a stainless steel panel that slipped into place and locked for security. The prototypes were done in Lomax's shop, and in the end they had taken a utilitarian mainstay and made it not only functional, but also beautiful. (The doors start at $70. Online at classycustom.com or call 866-615-6228.)

Many others were thinking along the same lines, including Brad White, a former executive with The Sharper Image, whose Midnight Pass company (Midnightpass.com, 877-844-4438) has brought several made-over pet-industry staples into his product line, most notably a Murphy bed for pets and a pet gate that looks like a piece of art.

With such choices coming from companies of all sizes, pet gear has now followed the trail worn by pets themselves, and consumers can now begin to choose merchandise that won't make them cringe to look at. With the popularity of home-design magazines and entire TV networks, it's a trend that's sure to grow.

Q&A

Better collar choice than 'choke' chains

Q: Why are so many "experts" trash-talking choke chains? I have a very strong dog -- a pit-Lab mix -- and a choke chain is a must to keep him in line. We used a head halter after a "trainer" insisted, but it didn't do the job. We'll never take off his choke chain again. -– C.S., via e-mail

A: I hope you're taking that slip collar (aka "choke" chain) off when you're not walking your dog. They are not safe as an everyday collar. Use a snap-together or buckled collar instead, or you may find your dog killed when the loop of the slip collar catches on something and he cannot get free.

The bigger problem with slip collars is that they are cruel and ineffective if used improperly -- and I almost never see them used the right way. They're put on upside down (with the moving end coming under the neck instead of over it), or are just kept constantly tight as the dog drags the owner down the street. Slip collars require not only knowledge of how they should be used -- if they're choking the dog, they're not being used properly -- but also a sense of timing that few people can manage.

That's why many trainers and behaviorists take the pragmatic approach and recommend head halters or front-clip harnesses, or even pinch or prong collars. All of these training tools are considerably less reliant on the skills of the dog's owner to use them properly, which means in the real world they manage leash-pulling more effectively.

Not all head halters and front-clip harnesses are created equal, though, and some designs are better than others. Work with a good trainer to ensure the correct piece of equipment and fit for the dog. A trainer can also help you teach your dog to accept a head halter more easily, if that's your choice, and can help you both learn the skills you need to walk safely and calmly with the proper equipment, which for many people is not a slip or "choke" collar. -- Gina Spadafori

(Do you have a pet question? Send it to petconnection@gmail.com.)

ABOUT PET CONNECTION

Pet Connection is produced by a team of pet-care experts headed by "Good Morning America" veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker and award-winning journalist Gina Spadafori. The two are also the authors of several best-selling pet-care books.

On PetConnection.com there's more information on pets and their care, reviews of products, books and "dog cars," and a weekly drawing for pet-care prizes. Contact Pet Connection in care of this newspaper by sending e-mail to petconnection@gmail.com or visiting PetConnection.com.

PET BUZZ

Westminster show longtime TV staple

-- When the beagle known popularly as Uno (but officially as Ch. K-Run's Park Me In First) was named Best in Show to a standing ovation at the Westminster Kennel Club dog show, he was also being cheered in dog-loving homes across the country. His win may have made news for a beagle, but the televised celebration was old hat: The first telecast of Westminster was back in 1948, three years before "I Love Lucy" premiered. Westminster is the second-oldest continuously held sporting event in the United States, second only to the Kentucky Derby.

-- A cat's claws are designed to move a cat forward, anchoring her as she propels herself. If that forward direction is up a tree, it's difficult to head back down. Instead, the gracefully powerful movement of a cat heading up a tree is counterbalanced by the crashing and (if she's lucky) controlled free fall she'll use to get down.

-- When Global Pet Expo, the massive annual pet industry trade show, wrapped up its three-day run recently in San Diego, more than $150,000 worth of new pet supplies from the booths were donated to the San Diego Humane Society. The show's sponsor, the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association, says that donating the new merchandise is more cost-efficient for pet-supply companies than hauling everything home and is certainly more beneficial to the shelter animals. -- Dr. Marty Becker

ON GOOD BEHAVIOR

Choosing litter? Let your cat decide

If you want your cat to use her litter box, don't just offer whatever's on sale. Instead, show some courtesy and ask her opinion first.

Let your cat choose from a litter buffet. Buy at least four different types of litter. Choose at least one that is the clumping kind -- the No. 1 choice of most cats. Fill each box with at least 2 inches of litter, and watch her exercise her opinion. When it comes to litter choices, you'll be happier when your cat is happiest.

Donate the rejected brands to a local shelter, but save the boxes. Keep your cat happy by washing the litter box monthly with soap and water. As an insurance policy against one of the biggest cat behavior complaints -- house-soiling -- replace the litter box with a new one every six to 12 months. Don't risk having your feline choose an undesignated area as her new fresh-scent toilet.

You can bleach plastic as long as your cat is through with it. (Cats often reject bleached toilets.) You can go green by using the old, disinfected boxes for other uses. Plant marigolds or place garden tools in them, among other options.

But do give your cat the choice. Just as some people are picky about one-ply toilet paper versus two or fragrance vs. none, some cats are sensitive to the smell and feel of their litter.

(Animal behavior experts Susan and Dr. Rolan Tripp are the authors of "On Good Behavior." For more information, visit their Web site at AnimalBehavior.net.)

PETS BY THE NUMBERS

What dogs (and cats) get into

Banfield The Pet Hospital's medical database, DataSavant, reported the top 10 dogs most susceptible to eating something that requires medical attention to remove:

1. Dachshund

2. Beagle

3. Labrador retriever

4. Golden retriever

5. Boxer

6. Rottweiler

7. Pit bull

8. Yorkshire terrier

9. Pomeranian

10. Chihuahua

For cats, at the top of the list is the inquisitive Siamese.

THE SCOOP

Veggie goodies great for pets

March is when we all start thinking of gardening. If you're putting in some new plants or a new vegetable garden, don't forget to include a few that your pets will enjoy.

Carrots are favored by many dogs and make a great substitute for commercial treats, especially for overweight pups. Catnip is a natural for cats, but also consider valerian, another herb that makes kitties dance with joy. Cats and dogs both love nibbling new greens -- not only grass shoots, but also mustard, kale and more.

Rabbits, guinea pigs, rats and other rodents will enjoy any leafy vegetable you plant. And as for parrots, what's good for you is great for your bird. The fresher the better! -- Gina Spadafori

Pet Connection is produced by a team of team of pet-care experts headed by "Good Morning America" veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker and award-winning journalist Gina Spadafori. The two are also the authors of several best-selling pet-care books. Contact Pet Connection in care of this newspaper, by sending e-mail to petconnection@gmail.com or by visiting PetConnection.com.

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